Ariane Sadjed
Persian and Jewish culture are closely connected, says Ariane Sadjed. An Austrian with Persian roots, cultural scientist Sadjed does research on the history of her ancestors, the Jews of Iran, and refutes traditional narratives. She aims to illustrate the many faceted nature of the coexistence of Jews and Muslims over the centuries. © Stefan Csaky/ÖAW

“Originally, I mainly wanted to know more about the lives of Jews in Iran today.” What seems to be a harmless statement by Ariane Sadjed on the surface is actually quite charged. “Jewish life in Iran” is not a harmless subject, since it is tainted by so many controversial aspects, such as the relationship between Iran and Israel, religious minorities in the Islamic world, or the coexistence of Jews and Muslims. But Sadjed has not been scared off by this complicated context. “My own family history gives me a somewhat different awareness of the subject anyway.”

Sadjed is half-Iranian: on her father's side the family is of Iranian-Jewish origin and her mother is Austrian. The Iranian branch of her family had already emigrated before the Islamic Revolution in 1978/79. After the revolution, there was no way to stay connected with Iran. “It was this horrible, scary country that you only knew from watching television,” Sadjed recalls. “But I still became interested in learning what life was really like there.”

In 2018, in the context of a major project funded by the Austrian Science Fund FWF, Sadjed got the opportunity to study Jewish life in Iran more thoroughly. A year after the project started, she was able to travel to Iran herself and establish contacts with members of the Jewish community. “I’ve already noticed that there's a big discrepancy between what people here in Austria think about life there and what life is really like.”

Moving away from generalizing meta-narratives

She usually encounters two extreme types of opinion, Sadjed tells us. There are those who associate being Jewish predominantly with European Jews and the Holocaust and do not even know that there are Iranian Jews. When she talks to them, they are often surprised that there are synagogues in Tehran. And then there are the others, who have looked at the issue in greater detail, but who still believe that Muslims have always oppressed Jews and are still doing so today. According to Sadjed, there another position emerged in recent years: those who gloss over the complicated issue, who think that Jews in Iran have always felt like Iranians, i.e. those who idealize the relationship between Jews and Muslims. According to the researcher, the latter are mainly people who do not agree with the Israeli-Zionist discourse.

Molla Agha Baba Synagogue
Iranian Jews enter the Molla Agha Baba Synagogue, in the city of Yazd about 700 kilometers south of capital Tehran. Iran, a home for Jews for more than 3,000 years, has the Middle East’s largest Jewish population outside of Israel. © Ebrahim Noroozi / AP /

“For me, the exciting thing was to learn what the everyday reality was like,” says Sadjed. “I wanted to get away from meta-narratives with fixed opinions about what 'the Jews' are like; and I wanted to hear individual, small stories.” A graduate in cultural studies, Sadjed works anthropologically and is used to searching for material beyond the archives. She approaches the topic through family stories, conducting interviews with Iranian Jews, asking them what their parents told them about the past. Sometimes, her interview partners also provide her with documentary sources, ranging from memoirs to private archives. “That’s where I've found really beautiful things that research hasn’t taken into account at all.” Given the difficulty of accessing documents in Iran, but also because of a Eurocentric view, much of the research, if it is done at all, is usually based on texts about – and rarely on texts by – Jews in Iran.

“I wanted to get away from meta-narratives with fixed opinions about what 'the Jews' are like.” Ariane Sadjed

A picture is starting to emerge

Iran does not make it easy for foreigners who want to study the country. Even researchers, who – unlike most Americans and Israelis – are allowed to enter the country, will not get access to everything they need. The Austrian Academy of Sciences, and specifically the Institute of Iranian Studies, where Sadjed works, has been enjoying good relations with Iran for a long time. “Through these contacts, I slowly started building up further contacts with people from Iran and with families who began sharing more and more with me.” In this way, a picture began to emerge from these variegated sources, including archival material from Israel. “I have to emphasize that the insights should be taken with a grain of salt,” says Sadjed. Many people are suspicious and weigh their words very carefully. In some cases the telephone lines of her interview partners had been tapped. “Sometimes it takes years of experience to be able to decipher the subtext in their statements.”

Passover celebration in the city of Mashhad
Passover celebration in the city of Mashhad, in northeastern Iran (1927). The city is known for Jews living outwardly as Muslims there in the 19th century. Today, Mashhad no longer has a Jewish population. The photo is from the series “The History of Mashhadi Jews” (2 vols.). © ÖAW

Before the Islamic Revolution, Iran was a country where religion tended to be of secondary importance. Many of the Jews, who often experienced improvements in their economic situation, lived secular lives, just like many other Iranians. They had little truck with religion; the truly religious Jews were considered backward even by their peers. When the revolution occurred, many Jews emigrated, which often implied a decline from a material and social point of view. While they lived in large houses with maids in Iran, many encountered difficulties as “Oriental Jews” in Israel.

Religion is making a comeback

For the Jews who remained in Iran, religion inevitably became more and more important. Religious discourse becomes a necessity and Iranian Jews now have to emphasize their Jewishness. “Everyone you talk to tells you the same thing: they have become more religious because of the revolution,” says Sadjed. Hence, one finds that everything connected to religion works fine. The Jews have autonomy, there are synagogues, kosher restaurants and kosher butchers. According to the official Iranian discourse, the Jews in the country are Iranians, and the state only fights Zionism. The Iranian Jews who have stayed also have a complicated relationship with the Jewish state. “They say they reject Zionism. But of course they want to visit Israel, where they have relatives.”

Today there are not many Jews left in Iran. Traditions like the Jewish-Persian language are disappearing or already gone. In material terms, the Jews in Iran are not badly off. Most are doctors or entrepreneurs and want to stay in the country. “While there are legal forms of discrimination in modern Iran, it is hard to say to what extent they apply in everyday life. Usually practice is different from the provisions in official decrees.”

Yusuf and Zulakhai
A Judeo-Persian manuscript describing the legend of Prophet Yusuf and Zulakhai, found in both the Quran and the Old Testament (Mashhad, 1852-1853). Judeo-Persian is Persian written in Hebrew script. Until the early 20th century, Iranian Jews wrote primarily in Hebrew. As a spoken language, Hebrew was limited to liturgy. © Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary New York, ÖAW

A course catalog for summer reading

Sadjed has been dealing with the issue of religious minorities for a long time. She says that she has always felt uncomfortable when confronted with all the stereotypes about Iran. This is why she began early on to investigate areas that tend to be analyzed in a one-dimensional way. Sadjed studied psychology at the University of Vienna, and her particular area of interest was cultural psychology. There was only one professor for this tiny sector at the university, and he was the supervisor of her diploma thesis, which dealt with the notion of feminism among Muslim women in the German-speaking world.

“I've always been drawn to teaching and research,” notes Sadjed. “I still remember spending time on my laptop while on vacation in Mexico, looking through the course catalog of the University of Vienna.” She decided to pursue doctoral studies at Berlin's Humboldt University, because she was intrigued by the work of a professor of cultural studies there. She began to do anthropological research on Iran and, later, moved to the USA for a year, where her work brought her closer to life as a “researcher”. She finished her PhD, had a daughter and realized how difficult it is to start a research career. “Writing the proposal for the project on Jewish life in Iran was my entry into academia,” Sadjed says. “Since then, I've been fighting to keep going.”

Meanwhile the project has been completed, and a new one has already been approved. Together with colleagues from the Czech Academy of Sciences, Sadjed will look beyond the borders of today's Iran. Historically speaking, Iranian Jews have been very connected to the Jews in Afghanistan and Central Asia. These connections, which are not reflected by today's borders, are the next item on Sadjed’s research agenda.

Current protests meet with widespread solidarity

And then there is another topic that no one working on Iran can avoid, even if it is not their speciality. In September 2022, the country saw major waves of protest. Iranian women have been fighting back against the regime ever since, in the streets as well as on social media. And here, too, looking through the “Islamic lens” causes important aspects to be ignored. “I found it problematic how much the world focused on 'the women are fighting to lift the veil,'“ Sadjed says. “That was the hook, but the protests were about much more.” They were directed against the rigid regime and the economic crisis, Sadjed says, and they were supported by women and men, both religious and secular. “This is not the Tehran middle class, who have borne these protests so far. There is now solidarity found among the ethnic minorities and the religious rural population.” And that, according to Sadjed, is the reason for the regime being so afraid of the protests.

She tells us that a friend of hers, himself an Iranian Jew, is skeptical that anything will change. She herself is somewhat more optimistic: “A lot of people have realized that together they can make a difference. But how this will evolve and where it will go, no one can say.”


Personal details

Ariane Sadjed studied psychology and cultural studies and has been a research associate at the Institute of Iranian Studies of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (ÖAW) since 2018. Her research focus is on Jewish history in the Persian-speaking world. She also investigates the role of Islam in modernity, ethnic and religious identity, and migration. Sadjed has conducted innovative research on migration and religion, including a project in which she focused on Jewish and Islamic minorities in Austria and their shared experiences.